What is 5-30-90% feedback?I think it was Seth Lieberman who first drew my attention to the idea of 30% and 90% feedback windows. Today Will Critchlow drew my attention to the further nuance of adding a 5% check-in and I was taken with the idea. So I want to share it.
This is how it works:
- You expect your people to come to you three times for feedback: when the project is 5% complete, 30% complete and 90% complete.
- The feedback you give is very different, depending on where the project is. At 30% nobody cares about typos. At 90% that shit matters.
But of course I am going to write more, because I am Manley, so here we go:
5% feedbackWhen you give 5% feedback it is really just going to be something along the lines of:
- That is a sodding awful idea, stop wasting your time on it.
- That is a great idea. Keep working on it.
- First impressions the concept at a high-level
- Why not get Jane and Kevin involved?
- Have you considered doing that using this old idea as the platform?
- Come back and see me when you are 30% done.
- Are you targeting the right audience?
- How does this fit with the goals of the organisation?
- Will it scale? (you always have to ask 'will it scale?' - if you do not know why, check out number 6 in this required reeding from the Cooper review).
30% feedback30% feedback is
THE VERY WORST THING YOU CAN DO IS HOLD BACK.
If someone comes to you for 90% feedback and you tell them something you thought at 30%, all you have done is wasted their time. Say it now whilst there is time to change direction. If you want to read someone other than me saying this to you, try Radical Candour1.
Now you can be a pedant. Pick on the typos. make comments about the grammar. Be a bit of a dick. I know you want to be.
Unless something is glaringly wrong and has changed substantially from the 30% check-in, it is too late for that now. You should have pointed it out 3 months ago at the 30% feedback stage. Help them polish their work.
So how do I make this work?It is not easy. Getting people to come to you with incomplete work is hard. The 5% piece is not too trying; folk like brainstorming, but 30% is tough.
Nobody wants you looking over their drafts when they are poorly formed, but 30% is the most important stage.
- Insist on all 3 check-ins for feedback. Actively ask for them.
- Be honest.
- Do not praise people who come to you for feedback for completeness or success, praise them for speed in coming to you. Praise for the completed work is reserved for when it is completed. Do not even praise them for the idea. You praise them for bringing the idea to you (even if it is abysmal - fail fast, people!)
- That said, do not be too much of an arsehole about it. Kevin Ochsner (who is an incredibly amusing speaker) once presented some research showing that only 30% of feedback is used. Folk do not like confrontation, they do not like criticism. Make sure your feedback comes from a safe place, especially if you are their boss. I have not read it yet, but I am assured that Crucial Conversations is the go-to book for exploring how to have difficult discussions without being a dick.
- Try to cultivate a culture where looking for feedback is the norm. Those who actively seek out feedback and are eager for it get more detailed feedback, are more likely to act on it and are more likely to view it in a positive light. The projects will run smoother, the office will be friendlier and people will act on feedback they get from their peers and their teams, not just from you. Seeking out feedback needs to become a habit.
- Be honest.
- Try to be positive. Anyone who has ever worked for me knows that this is somewhere I really fail. I do not know how David Tapp managed not to murder me. I always just point out the things which need changing and assume that everyone knows that the rest of it is good, otherwise I would mention it, right? Wrong. Trite as it sounds, try and bracket criticism with praise. This is not just you trying to appear affable; praise triggers reward centres in the brain and increases the chances that your feedback will be acted upon. If you are just negative then you are likely to trigger the backfire effect.
- Always give solid feedback at 30% - 20 minutes of your time could save someone a month of pointless work. If someone's project is genuinely not worth 20 minutes of your time then maybe you should be thinking about firing them. No? Then do what has to be done.
- Be honest.
- At 90%, if the project is at a MVP stage then say so. 'This project is ready for end-users. They will be happy with this and you have done a good job'.
- Now start to explore areas where a craftsman might polish up - the little nuanced extras which will take this from being one kind of MVP and make it the other.2
- Talk about which of those changes are worth making, which are just gilding the lily and which, whilst desirable, are not appropriate within the time constraints and the wider objectives of the company.
- This sandwiches negative feedback nicely, it gives a reason that they have not been done and it makes it clear that you are not tearing their project apart, but rather that you are suggesting final flourishes to make it what it should be - the work of an artisan.
- This is a good technique. I am dreadful at it. I guarantee you can do this better than I can.
- Remember that this whole methodology and feedback framework will not always work. Sometimes at 90% you'll see something you missed at 5% and 30%.
- Remember that this is on you, not on them (most of the time) and that you have vastly reduced the frequency with which it has happened.
I need to include some caveats as well. This whole time I have been thinking about projects. Feedback on technical projects are very different to some other formats, most notably:
Sales is special - give solid supporting feedback, but always try to leave your sales team with confidence. You might sometimes want to leave them paranoid as hell and hungry for approval, but never undermine their confidence unless it is time to fire them.
Creative is less simple. Creative is not as measurable and negative reactions to feedback are especially true when looking at creative projects. This study is from 2005, but it still hold up well. The core messages are:
- Getting feedback on creative work is surprisingly rare.
- Folk avoid both giving and seeking feedback like the proverbial plague,
- Creative feedback almost always leaves a negative emotional impression.
I am the first to admit that I do not motivate creatives well. I am not the person to give advice on how to best field feedback in a creative environment. That said, I know my failings and I know where to ask. You could do far worse than this paper from Spencer Harrison and Karyn Dossinger.
Finally: none of this is mine, it is a mixture of old conversations with Matt Vahiboglu and an old blog by a chap named Joel, whose surname I cannot remember [Update: it was Spolsky - I used to read his Joel On Software blog religiously, until he decided to write his own compiler (Wasabi) for Fogbugz and my brain just exploded with the ridiculousness of such an idea]. It is things I have heard other people say - leaders far more gifted than myself, and it is absolutely sparked today by Will Critchlow, as I mentioned at the start, but this advice is good advice, so I wanted to share it. I like to write. I find it helps me cement ideas in my mind, and provides a clarity that just thinking never can.